Elmhurst was home to Nicole Laliberte from the time she was 6 years old until age 16. During those years, she attended Hawthorne, Sandburg and York High School.
“Growing up I had neighborhood friends with fond memories of building tree forts and generally getting dirty,” she says.
But by 16, Laliberte left home after being accepted to an early college admission program at Simon’s Rock College in western Massachussetts. Over the next two decades, Laliberte would go on to travel all over the world, living, learning and teaching in Guatemala, South America, Turkey and north, east and south Africa.
That's why during the past year she’s spent living and doing research in Northern Uganda, Laliberte had a difficult time explaining her concept of “home” to her friends.
Granted, when Laliberte has some time off, the 34-year-old finds herself making her way back to Elmhurst to visit her parents, Betty and Charlie Laliberte. But unlike her Ugandan friends, her concept of “home” isn’t necessarily a geographical location.
“Even the people who live in town now, who don’t live in their villages—the village is still home,” she says. “Home is always the village. It’s where your ancestors are buried.”
When Laliberte tried to explain her concept of home, her Ugandan friends would ask, “But where is your land? Where is the land you came from?”
“I kept trying to say, ‘I don’t have that in the way you have that,’” she says.
Displaced, but hopeful for the future
For the past year, ending in June, home for Laliberte has been a mud hut in the village of Awere in northern Uganda. There, Laliberte conducted research toward her doctorate from Penn State University in a dual degree program in Geography and Women’s Studies. Laliberte also spent many weekends with a host family.
“I went into the project interested in what people’s visions of a positive future were, or what kind of future they wanted and how that played into the creation of recovery projects and programs,” she explained.
“My research is on the resettlement process in northern Uganda following the twenty-plus year war that saw almost 2 million people displaced—most of the population,” says Laliberte. “I have been working with various non-governmental organizations and, in particular, one community based organization that is a grassroots human rights organization. Through their eyes, I've been learning about challenges of resettlement—from land disputes to domestic violence to dealing with climate change for farmers that have been off the land for a decade.”
The widespread displacement is a result of camps or “protected villages” set up to protect civilians from rebel leader Joseph Kony’s attempt to cleanse the Acholi population in northern Uganda. His brutal practice of kidnapping children and using them as child soldiers for his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), coupled with the displacement of millions of people, many of whom were agriculturalists, has created a devastating social upheaval in the region.
“As traumatic as Kony was, and the effect of the Lord’s Resistance Army, it’s really the movement to the camps and being stuck in the camps for 10 to 15 to 20 years that devastated many people’s lives,” says Laliberte. “It’s much more complicated now, when you have people who have been displaced and not living on the land, and their family units are not in place.”
The bulk of Laliberte’s research centered around a woman’s group, formed by 84 women who banded together and received training and resources from a non-government organization. Laliberte’s role was not to help or interfere in any way, but just to learn.
“What they do is a lot of mediation work,” explains Laliberte, who says the women (and more recently, some men) deal locally with domestic issues or sometimes bigger cases that then get referred to lawyers.
“It’s this fascinating combination of motherly advice and universal human rights law,” says Laliberte.
In January 2011, Laliberte was visited by her parents, who have traveled to Uganda almost every year since 2005, doing work for their own non-profit organization, Children UP. Charlie recalls being anxious to see Nicole, knowing she would be settled in her surroundings after already being there for several months.
“People were so excited that Nicole’s parents were coming that they decided to throw us a party,” Charlie said.
Nicole had warned her parents they would be overwhelmed by their welcome, but Betty and Charlie assured her they would be ready. As soon as Betty and Charlie arrived in Awere, they were met with a measure of hospitality beyond their imagination.
“Four hundred people showed up. There were speeches, the elders got up and spoke, then the women’s group got up and spoke,” he said. “Then they sang and danced all the traditional dances with drumming.”
And there was food. Lots and lots of food.
“It was spectacular,” said Charlie.
By 11 p.m., Charlie and Betty, weary from their travels, retired to Nicole’s mud hut for the night.
“We got up at 7 a.m. the next morning, and they were still dancing,” he remembers. “Then some of the people lived 10 or 15 miles away and had to walk home,” he marvels. “They had come all that way, just to meet us.”
Seeing their daughter, and the respect she had earned from the people she had met in Uganda, confirmed to Betty and Charlie what they already knew about their daughter.
“She has a real knack, especially with an indigenous group, for just taking it on,” says Charlie. “She lives like they do and she learns the language—she’s not fluent in their language, but she can get up and give a talk in front of a group, which she did at this party. That endears her to people, I think.”
“For me, when I’m somewhere and I’m with people, it’s just people living,” she explains. “It’s just people finding a way to survive. And if you take the time and you don’t look at the differences, you really see that there are some fundamental things that are similar,” she says.
“That’s where you start from."